Power Consumption – Technology, Policy and Politics

Energy Efficiency – Recent press reports concerning the power consumption of cable television set top boxes have raised interest in and awareness of how our modern gadgets like digital videos recorders, streaming video players, tablets, and mobile phones, contribute to energy bills and carbon emissions.

In a recent email from the IEEE Communications Society I was informed of the impact of emerging technologies, in this case gallium nitride (GaN) high electron mobility transistors (HEMTs), on the power consumption of today’s mobile phone infrastructure.  Cree, a developer of GaN HEMT-based power amplifiers points out that “the world’s cellular network is estimated to consume more than 100 TWh of electricity per year (approximate value of $12 billion US dollars) and 50–80 percent of the networks’ power is consumed by the systems’ power amplifiers and feed infrastructure.”  Cree goes on to point out that using the firm’s GaN HEMT-based cellular radio base-station power amplifiers yields performance improvements of more than 20 percent over incumbent technology through increased power amplifier efficiency.  The firm estimates that if the incumbent technology was replaced with Cree’s GaN power amplifiers, “the resulting energy savings are an estimated 10 TWh per year, the equivalent power output of two nuclear power plants.”

In the case of mobile network infrastructure, realizing improved operating efficiency is fairly straightforward.  If mobile network system operators can realize energy savings and reduced operating costs through the use of new technologies, they will examine the depreciation and capital expenditure issues looking forward and make future replacement and new equipment purchases based on their economic analysis.  In the case of other industries, for example the cable television business, the economics as well as policy and politics can become more complex.

The recent press report concerning power consumption of cable television set top boxes was brought to my attention as I watched US television evening news.   NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams reported on June 17, 2014 that cable TV boxes “may be costing households as much as $8 per month (to operate) even when they are turned off” and nationally consume the output of four nuclear power plants.  The Nightly News story was based on reporting by the LA Times, with the headline that “Cable TV Boxes become 2nd Biggest Energy Users in Many Homes.”

The LA Times article noted, “The boxes have been at the center of a battle between the cable industry and conservationists who believe the devices could be far more efficient.”  The article quoted Andrew McAllister of the California Energy Commission (CEC) who pointed out, “It is a classic case of market failure.  The consumers have zero information and zero control over the devices they get.”  The LA Times article went on to say, “The industry agreed recently to voluntarily reduce the power consumption of new devices, which it said would save consumers $1 billion annually. But experts say the deal will provide only a fraction of the potential gains and take years to realize.”

Actually, the debate over the energy consumption of cable television set top boxes goes back more than a couple years.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funded a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that was conducted in 2010.  The results of the NRDC study were published (PDF file) in 2011.

The major results of the NRDC study are summarized below in a graphic from their report.  The graphic shows the historical increase in energy consumption by set top boxes and for two future two scenarios -“Business as Usual” and an “Efficiency Scenario.”  The graphic illustrates set top box annual energy costs ($/yr) and energy consumption in the NRDC’s favorite unit of number of 500 MW power plants for both scenarios.  Note that the “Efficiency Scenario” yields a projected saving by 2020 of seven power plants.


The interplay of technology, policy and politics that will be required to realize the potential energy savings described by NRDC is complex, has been playing out for a number of years already, and will continue in the future.  The set top box situation involves a diverse range of constituents from cable service providers, consumers, consumer electronics developers, policy groups, and regulatory agencies like the CEC, EPA, and more.  The economic analysis that can be undertaken by the mobile network operators in deciding to adopt new technology like GaN HEMT power amplifiers, based on total cost of ownership and return on investment involves a relatively narrow group of stakeholders and is relatively straightforward.  In comparison, realizing energy savings through the development and deployment of improved set top boxes looks to be more challenging and should continue to be a topic of public interest for the foreseeable future. – Phil Wright

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